Mumbai doctor Payal Tadvi's death has vital lessons for the anti-caste movement and its future
The anti-caste movement, I guess, forgot to tell those like Dr Payal Tadvi, when they were alive, that it needs them — now and always; it forgot to tell them that their lives are precious.
It is an ironic that we think rehabilitating savaranas will save our society, while forgetting that there are brilliant minds among many communities which are marginalised but never made a part of the anti-caste movement because of lack of communication.
We never told them that we are here to share their suffering, to help them come out of it.
The movement, I guess, forgot to tell them when they were alive that it needs them, now and always; it forgot to tell them that their lives are precious.
In 2013, I came to Mumbai to pursue my Masters at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), among the most prestigious institutes for the social sciences in India. I was among the few to top the entrance examination — granted a Rs 10,000 bursary and a laptop as part of a “Top Scholar Scholarship”. However, my admission took place under the Scheduled Caste category.
I was raised in a Dalit basti, schooled among Dalits/Adivasis, so when I first came to Mumbai, to TISS, I could feel in my bones what it means to be, to walk, to act, to speak in a place where the majority of people are savarna. You develop the idea that your words, actions, mannerisms might upset them, because as soon as you encounter them, you internalise a sense of being the ‘other’, being ‘different’ — and at times, unwanted. I experienced this, secretly. I witnessed this in classrooms, while talking to people, and while expressing myself. Even if I achieved high grades, it didn’t stop me from feeling what I did feel about myself, and what the savarnas thought of me.
What made me positive, firm and strong during these years were my engagements with the people involved in the anti-caste movement. My engagement with the larger movement may have been minimal, but I made it a point to seek out and nurture friendships with the people who worked within it. Its impact was invaluable: it instilled in me the vision to look beyond life’s dark phases and my individual failures. But not everyone, especially students from other marginalised communities, are able to build bridges with the anti-caste movement in the same way. This is because most of us are first-generation learners.
Let me explain: Coming from a Dalit basti, I felt a connection with the anti-caste movement and its people after coming to Mumbai. I have tried to deepen this connection, which I believe is the most lethal remedy against the attitudes and behaviours of the savarnas that we encounter. I am not saying that ignoring such discrimination or dealing with it is easy. What I am saying is that it can be dealt with better, if we are part of a larger movement (in whichever way possible) against caste, which is the root cause of such discriminatory behaviour.
I can only speculate that if Dr Payal Tadvi had been part of such a movement, she might have dealt with the discrimination differently. Hailing from a community which is not even in the public imagination of the nation and one that most us had never heard of until her death, Dr Tadvi’s achievements could have been an inspiration to many. For her community, she could have been what we all need in dark times: hope.
When I got to know about Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January 2016, I chose not to say anything. Having had people in my life who committed suicide, I was aware that you can never search for an answer as to what drove them to it. The answers are all buried with the person’s death, and all we’re left with is conjecture and a few bald facts.
Rohith was a fighter, a budding ideologue of Ambedkarite movement. Do such individuals give up? They do sometimes, in the face of caste-based discrimination that one poet has described as a “current of electricity; [where the] wires can be seen but not the current”.
If you study the phenomena of suicide among Dalit/Bahujan/Adivasi students in elite/savarna academic institutions, you will realise that all of them reached where they did because of their merit, effort and outlook. In their deaths, what we’ve lost are the brilliant minds of our generation. Could they have been saved? Could Rohith Vemula have been saved? Could Dr Payal Tadvi have been saved?
Payal’s death has brought her community of Tadvi Bhills into focus. Forced conversions are a phenomena in the community’s history, but they still hold on to their old customs and lifestyle. That we hadn’t hitherto heard of this community is a failure of the anti-caste movement, which tends to organise all marginalised people to create a society based on equality, liberty and fraternity. We think writing against, fighting against oppressors is the only way to strengthen the movement. But that perhaps constitutes only a small part of our strength. Our weakness has been a lack of communication with other marginalised communities — communities that do not even exist in the public imagination or have political representation. We try to find allies among upper castes communities but do not attempt to establish solidarity with other marginalised communities.
In Maharashtra, there are 59 Scheduled Castes. How many of them exist in the public imagination or in the discourse of the anti-caste movement, except the erstwhile Mahars (now Buddhists)?
Coming from a nearly unknown community, Dr Payal Tadvi rose to where she was on the basis of her ability. However, in the absence of communication with the larger movement against caste, tragedies such as this are likely to recur if the movement does not reconsider its methodology about what to speak, whom to speak with or make allies of, what to write, what to imagine and how to execute the movement. If we hope to save future Payals, then our dimensions of communication with other marginalised communities need to be reconfigured, rethought and reestablished to solidify the movement against caste.
India’s academic intellectuals have proven for the most part to be bogus. They aspire to learn from theories, and not from people. I have experienced humiliation in academic spaces which are dens of casteism. But being a part of the movement, being in contact with people from the movement, does help in staying strong through troubling times.
It is an ironic that we think rehabilitating savaranas will save our society, while forgetting that there are brilliant minds among many communities which are marginalised but never made a part of the movement because of lack of communication. We never told them that we are here to share their suffering, to help them come out of it. We have never told them that this is just a momentarily glitch in our emotions, our battle is bigger, our objective is to create life by being present. The movement, I guess, forgot to tell them when they were alive that it needs them, now and always; it forgot to tell them that their lives are precious. Who we communicate our joys and sufferings with, will decide the course of the anti-caste movement.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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